Florida Picks Up the Pieces Left by Hurricane Wilma

MIAMI, Florida, October 25, 2005 (ENS) - After making landfall Monday morning 15 miles north of West Palm Beach, Florida, Hurricane Wilma blasted across southern Florida and now is accelerating rapidly parallel to the U.S. East Coast, weakening as it races northeastward. At 11 am the hurricane's center was located about 590 miles east-northeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, moving at 53 miles per hour.

This weakening and northeast motion is expected to continue for the next 24 hours, keeping Wilma well offshore but creating high surf along the U.S. Atlantic coast.

Authorities confirmed six deaths in Florida - two people lost their lives in Palm Beach County, two in Collier County, one in Broward County and one in St. Johns County. The storm claimed the lives of six people in Mexico and 13 others in Jamaica and Haiti as it traversed the Caribbean last week.

The storm blew down trees and power lines, leaving about six million people without electricity, including most of Broward County. Florida Power & Light crews have already restored power to about 277,000 across the state.

Thousands of people are without water and officials warned residents to boil water before drinking in parts of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Fifteen sites have been designated as distribution points for free water and ice in Broward County.


Two Key West residents make their way along island streets flooded by Hurricane Wilma. (Photo courtesy Momekh)
Regardless of the death and destruction this year’s hurricane season has brought and the mandatory evacuation orders issued by Florida state officials, only about 10 percent of residents in the Florida Keys chose to evacuate.

“We had law enforcement encouraging people to leave, but unfortunately we cannot make them go,” said Irene Toner, director of emergency management for Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys. “We are very discouraged about the low number of people evacuated.”

Miami International Airport is still closed and the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport will remain closed until power has been restored and operations can be resumed.

In the Northeast, four airports experiencing high winds and rain are holding planes on the ground until Wilma passes. Traffic at Philadelphia, Newark, LaGuardia and Boston airports is affected.

Back in Florida, residents are lining up at the few open stores for gas, ice and generators. Emergency management officials are urging residents to stay off the roads today as recovery efforts are underway. Road crews are clearing debris from major roadways to ensure access to hospitals and other public safety facilities.

Most traffic signals are without power or are damaged, creating dangerous driving conditions. Drivers are reminded to use the four-way stop rule when approaching an intersection with a downed traffic signal.


U.S. Army National Guard Captain Sandra Doberstein fields telephone calls at the Collier County Florida Emergency Operations Center in Naples following Hurricane Wilma's strike on the area. Doberstein is the National Guard's liaison officer responsible for coordination and logistics between the military and local agencies. (Photo by Cpl. Edouard Gluck courtesy U.S. Army)
Schools are closed the rest of the week in Miami-Dade and Broward counties as principals assess hurricane damage to school buildings. Some schools lost their roofs, walls collapsed, and maintenance facillities suffered wind and water damage. Power is still out to most schools in those counties.

Today Governor Jeb Bush and Lt. Governor Toni Jennings are visiting emergency operations centers in areas impacted by Hurricane Wilma together with members of the Florida Emergency Response Team.

President George W. Bush has declared a major disaster in Florida, making federal aid available to assist recovery from the damages wrought by Hurricane Wilma.

David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said the assistance can include grants to help pay for temporary housing, home repairs and other disaster-related expenses. Low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration also will be available to cover residential and business losses not fully compensated by insurance.

For a period of up to 72 hours, assistance for debris removal and emergency protective measures, including direct federal assistance, will be provided at 100 percent of the total eligible costs. Federal funding is also available on a cost-sharing basis for hazard mitigation measures statewide.

Paulison said that more counties and additional forms of assistance may be designated after assessments are fully completed. He named Justin DeMello as the federal coordinating officer for Federal recovery operations in the affected areas.


Monday morning Hurricane Wilma pulled the water out of Tampa Bay, exposing the sandy bottom. (Photo courtesy Pedro Gonzales)
DeMello said those who sustained losses in the counties designated for aid can begin the disaster application process by registering online at http://www.fema.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA, or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired. The toll-free telephone numbers will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week until further notice.

The Coast Guard is attempting to coordinate the rescue of two boaters whose 67-foot sailing vessel broke free of its mooring sometime Monday about a mile and a half north of Mather’s Bridge in Port Canaveral, Florida.

A Coast Guard rescue crew from Station Port Canaveral attempted to bring a trailered rescue boat to assist the stranded boaters, but with all of the local boat ramps flooded, the rescue crew could not safely launch their boat. No helicopters could assist the vessel due to the gale force winds in the area of Port Canaveral.

A crew from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater rescued a man from his submerged sailboat in the Florida Keys Monday afternoon. Heavy winds from Hurricane Wilma caused him to break anchor at Bird Key and run aground near Gieger Key, where the vessel began to take on water. A Coast Guard crew hoisted the man into a helicopter and transferred him to medical personnel on shore.

Later Monday, they rescued a woman from another sailboat who suffered injuries when her boat broke anchor and drifted to Gieger Key as well.